Cheryl Gillan, Secretary of State for Wales, has decided that the referendum cannot happen this autumn, and will instead take place by the end of March 2011. Formally, what has happened is that the Secretary of State has declined the request for a referendum as voted on by the Assembly in January, giving as her reason ‘ the circumstances inherited from the previous administration’, and her consequent inability to consult the Electoral Commission on the intelligibility of the question.
The Wales Office news release is here, and a brief formal response from the First and Deputy First Ministers is here. News coverage from the Western Mail is here and here, and Cheryl Gillan’s article explaining her decision is here.
It’s telling that the Secretary of State and Welsh Assembly Government have agreed on March 2011 as the referendum date, thereby rejecting both the suggestion of autumn 2011 from Lord Elis-Thomas (reported here), and of polling day in May 2011 supported by an odd combination of John Osmond and Rachel Banner of True Wales (reported here; see also here for Osmond’s original suggestion of the date).
There are now three big issues to be dealt with before a referendum can take place. First, the question needs to be formulated, and the Electoral Commission has to report on the ‘intelligibility’ of that before the order calling the referendum can be made. Second, the formal campaign organisations need to be designated and set up. While True Wales appear determined to be the official No campaign, what will happen on the Yes side is less clear though the four party leaders are reported in the Western Mail as meeting to discuss this. (Given that the Conservative election manifesto committed the party to a ‘free vote’ not supporting a Yes vote, Nick Bourne’s inclusion is intriguing. )
Third, there is the question of the formalities of making a March referendum happen. In particular, will there be a further trigger vote for a referendum in the National Assembly? As I read the legislation, this isn’t required, but section 103 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 requires a vote in favour of holding it in both Houses of Parliament and in the Assembly in any event – and that motion must be carried by a two-thirds majority. The National Assembly will therefore have to be happy with the referendum date in any case, and by a large margin.